It is fair to say that we as people of faith live in an important cultural moment. Recent events including the 2016 American presidential election have produced far-reaching results that will be felt for years to come. How can we live faithfully as Christians in the midst of this moment?
I’d like to introduce you to a book that will help us think through these and other important questions. Letters To An American Christian is written by Bruce Riley Ashford. Bruce is Provost and Dean of the Faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Professor of Theology and Culture. He is also a Fellow in Theology at the St. George’s Center for Biblical and Public Theology (Ontario, Canada) and a Research Fellow at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is the co-author of I Am Going and One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics, author of Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians, and a regular contributor to Fox News Opinion, The Gospel Coalition, and The Daily Caller.
What does it mean to be an American Christian?
In Letters to an American Christian, Bruce Riley Ashford, author of One Nation Under God, addresses overarching issues of the relationship of Christianity and politics, speaks to the way historic Christian belief informs specific hot-button political issues, and challenges readers to take seriously both our heavenly and earthly citizenships.
While Bruce is primarily looking at American Christianity, I believe there are principles within this book that apply outside of the US as well. Letters To an American Christian has received many well-deserved endorsements.
The American political landscape is an increasingly challenging space for Christians to navigate. Ashford offers a vision for Christian civic engagement and applies it to the most pressing issues of the day. Letters To An American Christian is required reading for believers who desire to reflect biblical faith in the public square.
–Walter Strickland, assistant professor of Systematic and Contextual Theology, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Bruce Ashford brings much-needed clarity, consistency, and conviction to a range of concerns swirling amidst the sea of moral confusion that surrounds the church and the culture today. Every Christian will benefit from reading Letters to an American Christian.
–Karen Swallow Prior, author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books
Religion and politics are two of the most challenging topics for Americans to discuss today. Too often they generate more heat than light. Letters To An American Christian is different. Bruce Ashford has produced a highly readable and eminently sensible series of reflections on faith and public life. It’s a book American Christians need now.
–Ryan T. Anderson, author of Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom and When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment
Our Christian faith functions as the deepest motivation for contributing to the common good of our nation. More than anything else the Bible’s teaching and Jesus’ example motivate us to want justice and equality for our fellow citizens. I had the opportunity to catch up with Bruce Ashford and learn more about his thoughts and goals for this book.
Chris Robertson: What was your original purpose for Letters to An American Christian?
Bruce Ashford: For years now, we as American Christians have sensed the ground moving beneath us – socially, culturally, and politically. The 2016 election cycle (which felt like a combination of a war, a carnival, and a Hollywood movie) heightened that sense. And I think so many of us now are asking how Christianity can help us adjust to our new situation, how Christian teaching can help us think through American politics and hot-button issues.
CR: What motivated you to write this book in the format of letters to a college student?
BA: This book was a lot of fun to write, and I think it will be fun to read. I wanted to write a book that could be read at the beach or in a comfortable chair, one that is conversational, but at the same time gives solid counsel on how we as Christians can be faithful to our Lord when it comes to politics and public debates.
CR: One of the issues you discuss throughout the book is the importance of Christians thoughtfully engaging in the public square. This is an important issue, but also an issue which provokes disagreement. Why do you think Christians often resist engaging in politics and churches so often appear allergic to even discussing the topic of politics?
BA: As Christians, we sometimes resist the impulse to engage in politics because we think that participating in politics is bad in-and-of-itself. But I argue that politics is a God-given arena for human interaction and, although it is warped and twisted by sin (just like any other arena), we should enter into it and try to honor the Lord and make things better.
As churches, we are right to recognize that the church is not a political party or a public-policy think tank, and it has no business pretending to be those things. And yet, as the church shapes us to be ambassadors for Christ (the King!), it is preparing us to exhibit a Jesus-like combination of truth and grace in our politicking. Truth without grace makes us political bullies and jerks. Grace without truth makes us political wimps and non-entities. But grace and truth together allow us to make the strongest of arguments while exhibiting good will and having respect for our fellow citizens.
CR: There are many misconceptions on the subject of work and wealth. First, I appreciate your clear statement in the book regarding the command to work that occurred before Genesis 3. I agree with your assessment that market economies are the best system we have from the perspective of Judeo-Christian principles allowing us to acquire and use our wealth in ways that contribute to the common good. I’m curious to hear an example from your time in Communist Russia about why the socialist economy did not contribute to the common good and flourishing.
BA: Socialism, like other modern ideologies, is idolatrous. It absolutizes “material equality” as the ultimate goal in human life, thus making material equality a “god” of sorts. And the problem with this, as with any time we make something other than God ultimate, is that it makes things worse instead of better. Once we absolutize material equality, we commit ourselves to a heavy redistribution of wealth and heavy norming of the market that inevitably stifles entrepreneurship and suffocates the economy. Thus, everybody suffers in the end.
CR: You quote G.K. Chesterton in the context of a lament about the current state of American politics and our need for continued engagement: “When you love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness is a reason for loving it more.” This quote reminds me of a statement made by my friend, Steve Garber in his book Visions of Vocation where he discusses a student named Clydette who describes her recent time in Africa. “Now that she had seen so much, could she, would she, still give herself to the vocation of loving and serving God in his world ‘with gladness and singleness of heart…’” This is a good question with no easy answer. It applies to our public life regarding politics, but also our daily work, whether paid or not. What are your thoughts on how we as Christians, imperfect and implicated as we are, can winsomely engage in our world, despite its imperfections?
BA: God created a good world. And after the fall, it still remains “good” in the sense that it is still God’s world and the only world we have in which to love and obey him. Even though everything in this world is to some extent corrupted and twisted toward wrong ends, that is not a good reason to abandon it, to throw our hands up, to walk away. Instead, it is an opportunity – and an exciting one, at that – to enter into politics and other areas to restore what is corrupted and untwist what is twisted. It is the perfect opportunity to honor Christ and help make things better for our neighbors and fellow citizens. And, in doing that, the good words and good actions of the Christian community can serve as a “preview” of the day when Christ returns to make everything right.
CR: The title of chapter four is a beautiful description of the faith and work movement :“Christianity is not our side hustle.” Unfortunately, this dualism is all too common. I’d like to hear you describe a bit more about Abraham Kuyper’s influence on your thinking in this chapter.
BA: I consider it a crime and a tragedy that most American Christians have not heard of the great Dutch leader Abraham Kuyper. 🙂 Kuyper started as a pastor, but later in life founded a university, a political party, and a national newspaper, and then went on to serve in parliament and become the Prime Minister of the Netherlands.
There are many things we can learn from Kuyper, but one of the most important is that God created the world “good,” and part of its “goodness” lies in the various spheres of culture – family, church, art, science, politics, etc. As Kuyper sees it, and I agree with him, we should enter into those spheres asking three questions: (1) What is God’s creational design for a given sphere of culture? (2) How has this sphere been corrupted and twisted by sin and sin’s consequences? (3) How can we untwist what has been twisted in this particular sphere? And as we answer those questions, we learn how we can be obedient to the Lord and be a witness for him in our cultural activities.
CR: Is there anything you would like The Green Room audience to understand about engaging the public sphere in particular?
BA: In upcoming years, it seems that faithful Christians will be increasingly marginalized in American politics. We’ll realize that many of our political “friends” have always viewed us as useful idiots. We’ll realize that most Americans find Christian beliefs – especially our beliefs about gender and sex-implausible and even hateful. But that’s OK.
As followers of Christ, we can and must help our nation and serve as witnesses to Christ, even from the political margins. We must be prophetic, speaking truth to power but doing so with grace and respect. We must be sacrificial; if Jesus, the cosmic King of the universe, was willing to serve as a homeless itinerant teacher, then we can learn to live without some of the political “perks” we might have had in the past. And we must be humbly confident; confident because we know Christ will return to establish a one-world government with himself on the throne and humble because it is he rather than we who will do so.
Thank you, Bruce, for taking the time to share with me and our audience regarding your book and how we as Christians can meaningfully and winsomely engage in the public square. I heartily encourage your reading the whole book and using it to start conversations within your network on how people of faith should engage in the public square. We have a lot of work to do as Christians to connect our faith with our public witness. May Letters To an American Christian give us fresh insight and language to embolden our witness for His glory and our country’s flourishing!